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An exposition of sleep

As you get older you need less sleep. Right? Well, I’m not at all sure that’s true, although, if you’ve suffered from decades of insomnia as I have then it’s what you tell yourself – to offset all those gloomy media stories unhelpfully informing you that lack of sleep is as harmful to health as smoking and junk food.

My Loved One didn’t sleep well for a long time either. I suspect we’re a pretty typical couple. You sleep like logs, often right round the clock. when you’re young and first together. Then the children arrive. And, after the initial awfulness of night feeds and sleep deprivation, you both eventually learn to sleep with one ear cocked as you get on with life. Somehow after that a few years of that, one’s relationship with sleep is never quite the same again.

Then Ms Alzheimer’s turns up. Unlike the much wanted children she is, of course, a totally uninvited and unwelcome arrival. Odd though that just as children, like Macbeth, murder sleep, Ms A seems to enhance it – or at least that is MLO’s current experience.

He is now sleeping better than he has done since his twenties. Like nearly all men his age he usually needs to pop out to the bathroom once or twice in the night but falls straight back into deep sleep – almost as if he was 23 again, the age he was when we married.

There is an issue though. His night vision is terrible and I think that’s probably yet another Alzheimer’s symptom because it’s a fairly recent development. I can slip out of our bedroom across the landing and into the bathroom without turning on any lights at all – there’s a street light in front of the house which beams in. No so MLO who seems to need floodlights. Similarly, if I’m awake in the night and decide to read for a while I can turn on my bedside light and he is impervious. His tolerance of light is very high.

Now I loathe light in the bedroom. It makes it even harder for me to nod off.  So, for quite a while now, we’ve had curtains with black-out linings – bought for our old house and altered for the one we moved to 18 months ago. For MLO, that has recently become totally unsatisfactory. Every night – sometimes more than once – he would grope round the bed, muttering, usually waking me up (if he hadn’t already done so) by cannoning into the corner and grabbing my feet to save himself. Sometimes he would simply turn on his bedside light and wake me up anyway.  Not good for bedroom compatibility. I thought about this for a few months before coming up with a solution – of sorts.

He now has a child’s nightlight on his side of the room which is just enough to enable him to make his way round the bed. As far as I’m concerned, though, that light is so hideously bright that I could almost read a book by it and certainly wouldn’t be able to rest properly.  So I wear a sleep mask – which makes me look like Isobel Barnett on What’s My Line? (now that dates me!) or a burglar in a child’s comic. But it works. I’m away in my personal darkness – often not even noticing when he opens the bedroom door and turns on the landing light. He, meanwhile, can walk to where he needs to go in the night safely and often without disturbing me at all. It took me a while to get used to it, though. I woke up at least twice at the beginning thinking “Oh blimey. I’ve gone blind – as if I don’t have enough problems!”

Living with Ms Alzheimer’s is like that. She bowls problems at you all the time. The skill is to find solutions and compromises so that you can more or less carry on as normal. It feels like outwitting an enemy in a minor skirmish. We both know we shall lose the war eventually but I, for one, shall go down fighting with very shred of initiative and ingenuity I can summon.

And do you know what? I’m beginning to sleep more evenly than I have for a while too – presumably because I know my “charge” is safely asleep and OK.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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